Alhaji Umar Farouk is the National President of All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN). He says in this interview with CALEB ONWE that farmers’ ransom to bandits is capable of crippling the food security. He also touched on the issue of poor infrastructures, challenge of mechanisation, and irrigation facilities among other things. Excerpts…
The ongoing clashes between herders and farmers along with the banditry and terrorism across Nigeria are believed to be crippling the country’s economy. How are these affecting your members?
Let me tell you speedily that the banditry and terrorism across the country affects Nigerian farmers more than anybody, because activities have been stopped. Most of the farming activities in some areas in Borno, Yobe, Katsina and almost 80 per cent of Zamfara State have been stopped. You know that small farmers survive on what they do on a daily basis, even the labourers in the farm, who work for others, have nothing to do, and therefore do not have anything to eat. The banditry is creating more problems for all of us, because many people are becoming idle. The fear of death has pushed people away from the farms, which is the only surviving source for the rural people. The small farmers no longer have farms, because their lands have been taken over by bandits. Many of our farmers have been murdered and slaughtered like animals in cold blood. They are being kidnapped. The kidnappers believe that farmers are rich and have something to sell and pay ransom. Farmers sell their farms and other assets to pay ransom to secure their freedom from bandits and other kidnappers. We know that the government is trying it’s best to solve the problem, but we have devised a way of helping ourselves. We have advised farmers to form groups and also to make a time-table for work so that while some are working, others will be around to guard against the enemies. Some people are there to keep a watch and once they notice strange movements, they will raise the alarm to alert those who are working. We have also advised our farmers to always call security agents each time they notice such strange movements and if they can’t defend themselves, they should quickly run for safety, especially when the forces are too much for them.
Lack of modernisation and mechanisation has been identified as major obstacles to Agricultural development in the country. What do you think is the way out of this?
As an association, we have started engaging development partners and investors for funding mechanisation in the country. We have started getting tractors from these partners, and we are distributing them to farmers across the country. The tractors are distributed to farmers at subsidised prices and they pay within a period of time. We need about one million tractors in the country, but as it stands today, we have less than 10,000. We are not waiting for the government to provide all that is needed, because it is not possible. That is why we are inviting investors to come and partner with us. There is no place where agriculture is left in the hands of government, so Nigeria can’t be an exception. However, we want agriculture to be private sector driven. Previous governments came with some agricultural policies, but could not continue with such policies. The way governments promote agriculture are not the same. There is no consistency of policy in the sector. This is one of the reasons that have affected agricultural mechanisation in the country. Beginning from the Shehu Shagari to IBB, even Obasanjo’s regimes, we have had agricultural policies and programmes, but none of them was sustained after the regimes. Presently, we are making an effort to address the identified three major challenges to agricultural development in Nigeria.
What are these challenges?
The challenges are lack of mechanisation, adequate extension workers, and irrigation facilities. Without mechanisation, productivity is absent. If more land is opened for farming activities without machines, such land will remain fallow. There is no doubt that mechanisation increases agricultural productivity. It can also reduce cost of production in the farm. Food prices are relatively low in the climes where mechanisations have been embraced. In a place like Kano, to cultivate one hectare of land with a local hoe, you will be spending up to N30,000, but with a tractor, you will spend only N6,000. That is how mechanisation helps to mitigate the cost of production. Another important fact is when you use a hoe to cultivate a land, it goes only 3 to 4 inches deep, but the machine goes into the ground for about 18 inches. And Science tells us that the root penetration into the soil and fighting for nutrients in the soil will be better when a machine cultivates your farm. This shows that those who use hoe to farm get 20 bags of maize, for instance, the person that uses the machine gets up to 23 to 25 bags with less cost of production.
Nigerian farmers are believed to be backward in agriculture because of lack of relevant information. What is AFAN doing to bridge the knowledge gap?
It is not true that farmers in Nigeria are knowledge deficient or lack relevant information. What the problem is, is that they operate within the limitations that exist around them. Take for instance, there are some states in Nigeria where you can’t get up to two functional tractors. What do you think that farmers will do in such places? So, I want to change that narrative, that Nigerian farmers are ignorant. Farmers in the country are knowledgeable, but lack an enabling environment. These farmers are forced to operate based on what is available to them. When AFAN distributed small farming implements, you need to see how happy they were receiving them, because they have long longed for it. What the farmers need is intervention to be able to compete with their peers in other parts of the world. We have also started working on strengthening extension services in the country. The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Alhaji Sabo Nanono, has hinted on engaging about 75,000 extension workers. We have also been employing private extension workers to work with clusters of our farmers. We believe that such intervention from the government will supply the farmers with every necessary information they lack in any area. Farmers in Nigeria want to accept changes that are available within their domain.
What about poor infrastructures, which are believed to be hindering speed in developing agriculture in the country, how can this be overcome?
You are sincerely touching the areas where Nigerian farmers need help most. Poor infrastructures like rural roads are the problems affecting the farmers. Due to poor rural roads, there are places in Nigeria, where farmers are completely cut off from people during the rainy season. In some places, farmers are locked-up for like four months, sometimes, till the end of the rainy season they can’t access the markets with their products because there are no roads. At such places, you see farmers that sell almost everything they have and are forced to stay away until the rains subsided. We have called the attention of governments to the predicament of such farmers in various communities across the country. We have also seen that the government is already responding to our calls. There are some states where Nanono has opened up rural roads for ease of movement for farmers.
Lack of research and good record keeping by farmers have also been identified as a problem to running agriculture as a business in Nigeria. What is AFAN doing to help its members?
The problem we have is that about 70 per cent of farmers in Nigeria are the adult population. Also, about 98 per cent of this old population is small holder farmers. These people may not have good research and record keeping, but owners of big farms do. We are already addressing the issue among our farmers. We are changing their attitude and orientation. We are putting them in clusters for better access to information that will properly address poor record keeping. We are equally educating them on why agricultural activities should be handled like other business ventures.
High prices of food across the country are an indication that food security is still far from being achieved in Nigeria. What is your Association doing to stabilise food prices?
First of all, we need to understand why food prices are going high in Nigeria. During the harvest, prevailing market prices used to be very low. We should not just blame the farmers, because there are factors that contribute to this. At harvest, farmers can immediately sell off their products to pay up their loans; many do not have the facilities to store their products. Some of the farmers even sell without making profit. Those who are responsible for the food price hike are the middlemen, who have warehouses and have the resources to buy the products to keep till future dates. They are the ones who hoard the farm products and also create artificial scarcity, which invariably affects prices. We have also called on the government to intervene, if possible with a sort of subsidy that will be given to farmers directly. I am of the opinion that subsidies on fertilizers should be discontinued. Farmers’ cost of production should be taken into consideration. Government should set a minimum guarantee price. If a farmer produces at N10,000 and the government’s guarantee price is N13,000, to me that is a better subsidy. Nigerian government should take a cue from what is happening in other parts of the world. America that has made progress in agricultural development does not give fertilizers to farmers as subsidy. If there is a guaranteed minimum price that farmers get for their products, food prices can better be controlled. We are already talking to investors to restore the warehouse system which will enable farmers to store their products and those willing to wait for when the price will appreciate will have their products properly stored.
The former Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development started a process of repositioning the Bank of Agriculture with a view to making it a core Farmers’ Bank. How are farmers relating with that bank now?
We have written to the Federal Government asking that the Bank of Agriculture should be recapitalised, because now there is no money. We have also asked that farmers should be brought in as board members of the bank. This will help farmers to be part of decisions that affect our interests. We believe that when that is done, farmers can benefit more from the Bank of Agriculture.